This is the debut episode of “City of Refuge” — a 10-part podcast series about a little-known World War II rescue story that shows what happens when ordinary people won’t ignore the horrors that surround them. Through original interviews and historical materials, we’ll tell the story of this remarkable resistance and rescue effort that took place in the middle of Occupied Europe. We’ll experience their heroic efforts through the words of leading figures, still living community members and some of the people they saved. We’ll also examine the important lessons this story offers us today — amidst rising authoritarianism and another global refugee crisis.
Listen to episodes right here on Waging Nonviolence or subscribe on the platforms listed above. What follows is a transcript of part one, featuring relevant photos and images to the story. Click here to see this episode’s credits and here for additional resources.
We all need stories that give us hope and help us see that it’s possible to overcome the evil that exists in our world.
For Philip Hallie, those stories usually involved people like himself: soldiers who fought in WWII and defeated the Nazis.
But he didn’t like these stories simply because he related to them, he was also a noted scholar of ethics, who researched and wrote about human cruelty and how to stop it. His basic belief was that society needs “decent killers” — people willing to violate their ethical code for the greater good. Otherwise, cruelty would continue unchecked.
It wasn’t exactly the most uplifting finding, but it still gave him some hope. Unfortunately, though, by the early 1970’s, it wasn’t enough. The years he had spent studying the absolute worst things humans have done to each other throughout history were taking their toll on him.
Philip Hallie: Well, one day I was sitting in my office and I was reading about these horrors, and I couldn’t bear it any more. I really felt I didn’t want to live… I’d like to just go.
This is Philip Hallie speaking over a decade later in a 1988 documentary called “Facing Evil.”
Philip Hallie: The world was just unbearable.
Trying to snap himself out of it, he took a WWII book off his shelf, wanting to read something about the French Resistance. It was a subject that had always given him some comfort. After all, those French fighters embodied his “decent killers” belief.
Philip Hallie: I opened the page, and I started reading, and my cheeks started itching, and I reached up, and my cheeks were covered with tears.
To his astonishment, they were actually tears of joy — and also surprise. He thought he had read all there was to know about the French Resistance. But the page he had turned to was about something completely different than the armed guerrilla fighters that roamed France during the final years of the war. In fact, it was about something he didn’t even know was possible, and it challenged everything he thought he understood about human nature.
Philip Hallie: I was reading about a little village of Le Chambon, and reading about the way this little village saved people’s lives without killing or hurting or hating anybody.
This village, whose full name is Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, sits on a 3,000-foot high plateau in South-Central France. And during the war its people — along with those of several surrounding villages — sheltered, fed and protected around 5,000 refugees, including 3,500 Jews. Even more incredibly, they did this while openly rejecting Nazism, as well as its collaborators in the French Vichy government.
Philip Hallie: Their gray little church … perched on … a plateau on a high mountain … was like a battery, charged with love. Charged with such a power of love … that the Germans were disarmed in the literal sense, their arms weren’t relevant.
Reading about this village was an instant relief to Hallie. He was seeing a way out of his grim worldview.
Philip Hallie: I realized that this might be my salvation. That I could — by becoming interested in it — assimilate it, imitate it, mimic it, and maybe be saved.
The only problem was: he didn’t have much to go on. Just a few pages in a random book that was short on details. And no other information on Le Chambon seemed to exist anywhere. If Hallie was going to reorient his life around this story, he was going to have to uncover it himself, first.
So that’s what he did. He tracked down people who helped with the rescue effort, interviewed them and wrote a book titled “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.” When it came out in 1979, it was one of the first books to focus on WWII rescuers. In fact, the book that inspired Steven Spielberg to make “Schindler’s List” didn’t come out until a few years later. And while Oskar Schindler has since become the most famous WWII rescuer, the story of Le Chambon still remains largely unknown. And that’s something I find rather unfortunate because the lessons it offers are in many ways more relevant to us today.
You see, Schindler — if you recall — was a wealthy Nazi industrialist who used his privileged position of power to save Jews. As truly amazing as that was, it’s not easily replicable. And as we find ourselves in the midst of another refugee crisis, alongside rising authoritarianism around the world, we are going to need more relatable models for stopping cruelty. And I know of no better model than the one set by the people of Le Chambon and the wider plateau. These poor, rural villagers and farmers mounted the largest and longest communal rescue effort in all of occupied Europe.
So, please join me over the next 10 episodes, as we explore this incredible story.
Much like Philip Hallie, my own life changed after hearing about Le Chambon for the first time. It was 2006, and I was interning at a political magazine called The Nation. One of the other interns started telling me about his master’s thesis, which he had just completed.
Eric Stoner: The idea was to almost serve as an introduction to nonviolence, its power and the different approaches to it.
This is Eric Stoner, now my friend and colleague of 10 years.
Eric Stoner: When you start to talk about nonviolence, you kind of quickly realize that one of the very first things that comes up is WWII. And people often ask pretty quickly how that would work with somebody as awful as Hitler and the Nazi regime.
So, Eric dedicated his thesis to answering this very question.
Eric Stoner: I tried to collect as many stories as I could find. So I had stories from Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and France, obviously. It was something I found in most of the countries that were occupied or were really involved in the war, including in Germany itself.
These were stories of successful large-scale efforts to save Jews and push the Nazis out.
Eric Stoner: And most of those stories have been ignored or almost wiped out of our traditional history books and tellings of WWII.
All this was pretty eye-opening for me. In a sense, I was among Eric’s target audience, and it was resonating. But of all the stories he presented, I found myself most drawn to Le Chambon. It just stood out from the others in such a profound way. For starters, there’s the length of time it spanned.
Eric Stoner: This wasn’t a momentary episode. This was something that started before the war began and persisted throughout the entire war.
Another unique aspect was the village’s preparation.
Eric Stoner: There was this charismatic preacher who came to town years in advance and kind of started to prepare the community and lay the groundwork for the resistance that they would offer during the war.
His name was André Trocmé, and it’s pretty remarkable that he isn’t better known. This was a man who actually refused — even under the threat of arrest and deportation — to turn over the Jews hiding in his village. In fact, he actually told the state official threatening him: “We don’t know what a Jew is, we only know human beings.”
Still, it wasn’t the heroism of one person that saved thousands of Jews and other refugees.
Eric Stoner: It was a community effort, and it wouldn’t have been successful had the whole community not participated and bought in… I think it’s almost unique in the history of nonviolent movements and resistance to have a story where there really was so much preparation and planning and intention and grounding in nonviolence, where a whole community could really be almost trained and prepared to do this.
Learning all this really changed me. For one thing, I became obsessed with looking for other overlooked stories of nonviolence, which then led me to start a publication — with Eric — called Waging Nonviolence. We’ve been running it for 10 years now and despite the thousands of amazing stories I’ve learned about in that time span, Le Chambon has never been far from my mind.
Still, it wasn’t until Donald Trump won the G.O.P. nomination in 2016 that I decided to revisit the story in a bigger way. I began by going back to the two sources I knew about thanks to Eric.
Eric Stoner: The two main sources that I used were Philip Hallie’s book and the documentary “Weapons of the Spirit.”
The documentary came out in 1989, 10 years after Hallie’s book. And for a while, there wasn’t a whole lot else — at least in English. But that started to change around 10-15 years ago. Since then, half a dozen or more books about Le Chambon have been published — each one shedding new light on different aspects of the story Philip Hallie first discovered.
That’s why I got the idea to make this podcast. I saw an opportunity to pull together all the different strands of the story, and also present it in a new way — to a new audience — living in a new era of crisis. Still, the facts and information I’m going to share aren’t new, and I owe their existence to the people who have gathered them, especially since I’m neither a historian nor a French speaker — as some of you will no doubt notice by my pronunciations. Apologies in advance.
In any case, despite the trove of information I have to draw from there is one thing I found that none of my sources mention. And it’s the perfect thing to start off with, in that it’s a recording of Le Chambon’s charismatic preacher André Trocmé. I found it while searching through the documents his family had donated to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, just outside Philadelphia.
André Trocmé (recording): Theologians pretend that under certain circumstances Christians should go to war, that this would be a lesser evil.
The recording is from a short film made in the 1950s by the Fellowship of Reconciliation — an interfaith peace organization that still exists today.
André Trocmé (recording): I want to tell you… that this teaching about the lesser evil is wrong.
He appears as a tall, middle-aged man. Bald and bespectacled, but clearly very commanding. And while much of what he says in this film is about the Cold War, he actually takes a few moments to talk about Le Chambon.
André Trocmé (recording): The Jews were there around us. They came at our door, asked for protection.
To my knowledge, this is the only recording of André Trocmé talking about the rescue effort, in French or English.
André Trocmé (recording): We could have delivered them in the hands of the police. We were told that it wouldn’t be wrong, that they would be taken care of by people in the East of Europe. It was all a lie. We tried to save them. We didn’t take arms. Around us, the French Resistance movement would take arms… We simply hid these poor people in our homes, shared their fate — some of us have gone very far, also under persecution some of us have perished.
So who was this man? And why did he and the people of the village and its surrounding area act so differently than most everyone else during World War II? Well, that’s something I’ll be answering over the next few episodes. But rather than start from the beginning, I want to take you to a key moment in the middle of the story — just to give you a better sense of how unique this place really was. But first, a quick warning: I’m going to cover some unsettling aspects of World War II history and persecution in this next part. If that’s something you’d like to avoid, skip ahead to the 15-minute mark.
Newsreel: The year is 1942, and Paris is in chains…
It had been two years since France had surrendered to Germany, dividing the country into two zones. The northern three-fifths, which included Paris, was known as the occupied zone and was controlled by the Nazis. Meanwhile, the southern, or unoccupied zone, was the base of operations for the new French government known as Vichy because that was the name of its capital city.
The Vichy government was right-wing, authoritarian and in full collaboration with the Nazis. Immediately after taking power, Vichy leader Philippe Pétain began signing anti-Jewish laws into effect — laws that were initially harsher than those of Nazi Germany. This was cruel irony to the many foreign Jews who had fled west to France before the war to escape the Nazis. They were the first to suffer internment in France’s internment camps. But by the summer of 1942, with Hitler’s Final Solution underway, no Jews — foreign or French — were safe.
Starting in the early hours of July 16, 1942 and continuing through the next day in Paris, the Vichy police began arresting some 13,000 men, women and children. Around 6,000 were transported to Drancy, a temporary camp in the northern suburbs of Paris. The other 7,000 were packed into an indoor cycling arena near the Eiffel Tower called the Vélodrome d’Hiver.
Conditions were horrendous. There was practically no food or water. Everything had been sealed shut. There were not enough bathrooms and no clean accommodations. To make matters worse, the Vel’ d’Hiv — as it was known for short — had a glass roof. So the summer heat was trapped inside, raising temperatures to unbearable levels. Those who tried to escape were shot. Many others took their own lives, jumping from the rafters.
This misery lasted for five days, until they were taken to transit camps outside Paris. Parents were separated from their children, loaded onto trains and sent East. A few weeks later, the children followed.
While the French public had mostly supported or ignored Vichy’s anti-Jewish policies, the Vel d’Hiv roundup was so brutal that news of it began to spread across the country.
Magda Trocmé: We heard that all the Jews were put in the Vel d’Hiv, that they were divided up and sent to Germany on special trains. What we didn’t know at the time was the Jews were being killed.
That’s an actor reading the words of Magda Trocmé — the wife of Pastor André Trocmé and another one of the story’s central figures. Quick side note: I’ll be having actors read for both Magda and André throughout this podcast, since much of their dialogue comes from their memoirs or other sources that can’t be played here.
Now, getting back to where we were: The existence of Auschwitz and other extermination camps, where the Vel d’Hiv’s prisoners were sent and killed, was not widely known. But unlike many French people, the Trocmés could easily imagine what was happening to the Jews.
Magda Trocmé: We knew that there had been many pogroms… and we knew very well the attitude of the Nazis against the Jews.
Despite living in a rural and remote village, the Trocmés were worldly, educated and multilingual people. They had relatives in Italy and Germany, and had visited these places before the war — seeing the rise of Mussolini and then Hitler with their own eyes. And they weren’t about to look the other way while fascism spread in France. André immediately spoke out against the Paris roundups from his pulpit. Again, here is an actor reading his words:
André Trocmé: It is humiliating to Europe that such things can happen and that we, the French, cannot act against such barbaric deeds that come from a time we once believed was past.
Action was central to André’s faith. To him, being a Christian meant being actively engaged in issues of justice and making peace a reality, which is why he had been working since before the war had even started to prepare for and counter the currents of violence and hatred. His biggest accomplishment had been co-founding a school in Le Chambon with the very unique aims of promoting international unity and nonviolence. When Vichy took power, the school wasted no time teaching the students about Gandhi’s concept of noncooperation.
Magda Trocmé: It was suggested that we put a picture of Marshal Pétain on the wall. We decided not to do it. It was a small disobedience, but then we started to be more disobedient…
They refused to do things like salute the flag and ring the church bells on Pétain’s birthday.
Magda Trocmé: More and more we would disobey. We had a habit of doing it.
Eventually, at André’s urging, Le Chambon began sheltering refugee children, who had been released from the camps, thanks to the efforts of various aid groups. Other refugees came on their own.
Magda Trocmé: Why…? Because we were in the mountains… because someone had spoken, perhaps, of a minister who at that time had funny ideas.
By the time of the Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris in July 1942, word-of-mouth had played a major role in establishing Le Chambon as a safe place for refugees. But, importantly, that word had not yet reached the authorities. Of course, they couldn’t expect it to remain a secret for long. And the first sign that it wouldn’t was a notice from the regional prefect, a man named Robert Bach. He was sort of like the governor of the Haute-Loire region where Le Chambon is located. And his notice said that the village would soon receive an official visit from the Vichy Minister of Youth — a man by the name of Georges Lamirand, who was tasked with building up a French version of the Hitler Youth. André was devastated.
André Trocmé: For two years we had been struggling to steer our youth clear of state domination… We were teaching pacifism and opposing every type of totalitarianism.”
André wanted to refuse the visit, but members of the Protestant Church hierarchy said it was out of his hands. What’s more, they were to organize a huge day of activities, showing off the area youth and their dedication to France and Pétain.
André Trocmé: We felt like we were up against a wall. Nonetheless, things went our way rather than Lamirand’s.
When the big day finally arrived, and the Vichy motorcade rolled into Le Chambon, the Vichy Minister of Youth did not see the celebration he expected. Instead, the streets were empty.
André Trocmé: The official procession was a rather sad affair. I was sitting in Lamirand’s car as we drove through the town. There were no flags in the windows, no one lined up on the sidewalks: Everyone had followed our instructions. Lamirand was stunned.
Next, they drove to the sports field, where all the youths were supposed to be assembled to greet the minister. Again, however, the celebration was lacking. Only Prefect Bach and several other local officials were there to shake his hand.
André Trocmé: It seemed that he had planned a long speech but was forced by circumstances to keep his thoughts to himself.
So Minister Lamirand and his entourage processed on to the banquet that had been prepared for him. It was held on the grounds of a YMCA camp with nothing but picnic tables for seating. And the servers were the local girl scouts, one of whom was André’s 13-year-old daughter Nelly. While serving the minister a bowl of soup, she accidentally spilled a bit on his shoulder. The incident was the perfect encapsulation of how little effort the people of Le Chambon were willing to put in for this guest that had been foisted upon them.
After the banquet, it was time to head to the church, where Minister Lamirand was to join the village in worship. But André and his assistant pastor — a man named Edouard Theis — had refused to preach. So another pastor was brought in from outside the village to conduct the sermon.
André Trocmé: He did a wonderful job, kept his sermon short, and summarized the position of the Church: obedience to the State, on the condition that the State did not obligate one to violate the laws of God.
It was a subtle dig at the minister, who already must have felt quite uncomfortable in the church. After all, he was a Catholic — like the vast majority of France — and was not familiar with Protestant services. To make matters worse…
André Trocmé: I passed him a hymnbook and pointed to the verses. Awkwardly, he tried to sing, the poor man.
Finally, the service came to an end. Minister Lamirand must have wanted to cut his losses and head back to Vichy. But the village had one more thing in store for him. A delegation of 12 older students from the international peace school had a message they wanted to read. While it was presented as their own, it was more than likely written by André. So I present it here in his voice.
André Trocmé: Mr. Minister, We have learned about the horrifying events that took place in Paris three weeks ago, when the French police, obeying orders given by the occupation forces, arrested in their homes all of the Jewish families of Paris and shut them inside the Vel d’Hiv. Fathers were torn from their families and deported to Germany; children were wrenched from their mothers who suffered the same fate as their husbands.
Knowing from experience that decrees of the occupying forces are, in a short time, imposed on non-occupied France where they are presented as spontaneous decisions made by the head of the French State, we are afraid that the deportation of Jews will soon be applied in the southern zone of France.
All this was no doubt shocking to Minister Lamirand and the local officials in attendance, but then came something completely unfathomable in World War II-era Europe:
André Trocmé: We want you to know that there are, among us, a certain number of Jews. Now, as far as we are concerned, we do not make any distinction between Jews and non-Jews. That would be contrary to the teaching of the Gospel. If our friends, whose only offense is to have been born in another religion, receive the order to let themselves be deported or even be subject to a census, they will disobey those orders, and we will do our best to hide them in our midst.
According to André, the Minister of Youth turned pale and simply said, “These matters are none of my business; you should speak to the prefect.” Then, he quickly turned and walked away to his car. Prefect Bach was standing right there. And he was enraged. He also had a good guess as to who was behind the letter. Turning to André he said: “Reverend Trocmé, this was supposed to be a day of national harmony. Instead, you have created division!”
André Trocmé: “It’s hardly a question of national harmony,” [I answered], “when our friends are threatened with deportation.”
Bach countered by saying, “I’ve received my orders, and I’ll carry them out. The foreign Jews living [on the plateau] are not your brothers. They’re not part of your church, and they’re not part of your country.” He then went on to insist that deportation was for their own good. Citing none other than Hitler himself, Bach said the plan was to send the Jews to Palestine, where they could live normal lives separate from the Europeans.
Magda Trocmé: Many French people believed in what the Vichy government had said…
That’s Magda Trocmé again, André’s wife.
Magda Trocmé: They believed that Hitler was organizing a kind of Israel center for the Jews in Central Europe…
But the Trocmés knew better.
Magda Trocmé: We knew enough to imagine that this wonderful Israeli state in Central Europe would not be the kind of place that we would appreciate, that the Jews would appreciate.
Prefect Bach then demanded that André give him a list of all the Jews in Le Chambon. André, seemingly without thinking, then uttered a phrase that has become one of his most memorable, the phrase I read at the beginning of this episode:
André Trocmé: We do not know any Jews, we only know human beings.
A threatening expression came over Bach’s face, and he told André “If you are not careful, it is you who will be interned in a camp.” Then he turned and went back to his car.
André Trocmé: So, there it was! In 1942, no one knew what the Jewish deportation would result in… What we did know was that handing over one of our fellow men, who had trusted himself to us, was wrong.
The parallels between World War II and today are hard to ignore. After all, we’re in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since that era — with millions of people fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan after years of war and thousands leaving Central America and Africa due to increasing violence, poverty, drought and climate change. And how is the rest of the world responding this time around?
Eric Stoner: You’ve seen some examples of places that have tried to have a more humanitarian approach and open their doors and take people in.
That’s my friend and colleague Eric Stoner again.
Eric Stoner: But you’ve also had a huge backlash in a lot of places where people have closed borders and are really persecuting people that are fleeing.
The United States, of course, is one of those places. Since Trump took office, refugee resettlement has declined sharply — from a world-leading 97,000 in 2016 to the historically low level of 23,000 in 2018. This year’s numbers could be around the same, while 2020 might be something truly unheard of, as the Trump administration is currently threatening to resettle zero refugees next year.
All this coupled with the president’s racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and measures like the Muslim travel ban and family separation at the border certainly make things appear worse than ever. And, of course, in many ways they are. But deportations are actually down under Trump, as compared to the worst years of the Obama administration. That might actually be thanks in large part to the fact that more Americans have woken up to the issue — so much so that it’s actually politically viable for the mayor of a major U.S. city to not only oppose, but intervene with deportations.
Libby Schaaf: Yesterday, I learned information from multiple sources that there is potentially an ICE activity planned in the Bay Area that could be starting as soon as today. My priority is to keep this community safe.
That’s Oakland, California Mayor Libby Schaaf at a press conference last year, warning residents of a possible raid by ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. When I heard it, I felt reminded a little bit of André Trocmé and the spirit of resistance and rescue in Le Chambon. I also felt that — if communities are going to be leading the way — more people need to know and learn from the story of Le Chambon.
Eric Stoner: So yeah, I think this story is almost like a gold standard, where you can say: “Here is a place in time where people really did it right and really did everything they could, even putting their own lives on the line to protect and save the lives of people that were fleeing.”
Knowing this, I couldn’t help but wonder what I might learn by talking to someone who lived through the events in Le Chambon. But that was over 70 years ago. I knew my chances were slim, but I reached out to someone I thought might be able to help: Holocaust scholar and author Patrick Henry. He wrote a 2007 book called “We Only Know Men” — a reference, of course, to the that André Trocmé quote.
Patrick Henry: Hello Bryan?
Patrick Henry: How you doing? You can call me Pat.
I don’t know if it was his New York roots that made him eager to talk to a guy like me, in Brooklyn…
Patrick Henry: I’m sitting in my study, and I’m looking up at a picture of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.
But Pat quickly became a real friend and supporter. Without him, I might not have met the person who — perhaps more than anyone — made this podcast possible.
Patrick Henry: The interview you need to get is Nelly. I mean she was a teenager when it happened. She was there.
The Nelly he is talking about is Nelly Trocmé Hewett, the now 91-year-old daughter of André and Magda Trocmé. Though she hates being remembered for it (as I would soon find), she was the one — you’ll recall — who spilled a bit of soup on that Vichy official.
Patrick Henry: I think Nelly is kind of like the beacon. Once you interview Nelly, you’re going to see the path you need to take.
So, with Patrick’s help, I got in touch.
Nelly Trocmé Hewett: Greetings. You have reached a voicemail for Nelly Hewett. Thank you for leaving a message. Merci de laisser un message. Au revoir.
It was hard to believe I was going to speak to the daughter of Magda and André Trocmé — someone who knew them and lived through this incredible story of resistance and rescue three-quarters of a century ago.
Thanks for listening to part one of “City of Refuge.” Over the next nine episodes we’ll explore the inner workings of this incredible story of resistance and rescue. We”ll also meet people who witnessed the events, and we’ll examine the lessons it offers us today. On the next episode:
Nelly Trocmé Hewett: I was not involved in activities. I was too young to be in the Resistance. But I could witness a lot of stuff, and I lived through the war years as the daughter of these wonderful people called André and Magda Trocmé. So, this is my claim to fame, which is not much of a claim.
You can listen to “City of Refuge” on WagingNonviolence.org or wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be dropping new episodes every Thursday from now into November.
City of Refuge was researched, written and produced by Bryan Farrell.
Theme music and other original songs are by Will Travers.
This episode also featured the following songs:
This episode was mixed by David Tatasciore.
Editorial support was provided by Jasmine Faustino, Jessica Leber and Eric Stoner.
Our logo was designed by Josh Yoder
The featured photograph is from a collection at the United States Holocaust Museum Memorial
“American Militarism and Alternatives to War” – Eric Stoner’s master’s thesis
“Facing Evil” – a 1988 documentary produced by Moyers & Company
“Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” – Philip Hallie’s 1979 book
“Weapons of the Spirit” – a 1989 documentary written, produced and directed by Pierre Sauvage
“We Only Know Men” – a 2007 book by Patrick Henry
“A Good Place to Hide” – a 2015 book by Peter Grose
“Courage to Care” – a 1986 book by Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers
“Magda and André Trocmé: Resistance Figures” – a 2014 book edited by Pierre Boismorand and translated by Jo-Anne Elder
“Portrait of Pacifists” – a 2012 book by Richard Unsworth
“A Good Place to Hide” – a 2015 book by Peter Grose
“Tales of Good And Evil, Help and Harm” – a 1997 book by Philip Hallie